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McGovern, Torres Lead 26 Members of Congress Calling for Obama to Declassify Records of the Disappeared in El Salvador Civil War

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Washington, DC, August 15, 2016 | comments

Today Representatives Jim McGovern (MA-02) and Norma Torres (CA-35) led a group of 26 House lawmakers in a letter calling on President Obama to declassify U.S. military and intelligence records and reports that have not been previously released that relate to unresolved cases of disappearances and human rights abuses during the period of the civil war in El Salvador

“The United States played an important role in providing military, economic and intelligence assistance to the Salvadoran government, military and its allies over the course of the civil war,” the House lawmakers wrote in the letter. “Further declassification in relation to unresolved cases in El Salvador could now help bring peace to the families of the disappeared and advance that nation’s on-going process to secure justice and reconciliation.” 

Congressman McGovern is the co-chair of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and Congresswoman Torres is the co-chair of the House Central America Caucus. In April 2016, the commission and caucus hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill with Salvadoran and Salvadoran-American family members whose loved ones disappeared during the civil war. Mr. David Morales, the Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman, was also a panelist at that briefing.

“Today, as Salvadorans and Salvadoran-Americans call for investigation of unresolved disappearances, and as other human rights cases move forward, it is appropriate and timely for the U.S. to consider a new review and declassification of all remaining records in relation to these cases and circumstances,” the lawmakers added. “Information in U.S. files could help identify individuals or groups involved in forced disappearances and provide insight and leads about where those forcibly disappeared were taken for interrogation, or where bodies were disposed.  U.S. records might help identify some of the patterns of disappearances and give investigators clues as they pursue cases of forced disappearance or other abuses.

Joining McGovern and Torres on the letter to President Obama were Representatives Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Grace Napolitano (D-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), Maxine Waters (D-CA), Sam Farr (D-CA), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Mike Honda (D-CA), Donna Edwards (D-MD), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), John Lewis (D-GA), Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA), Denny Heck (D-WA), Brenda Lawrence (D-MI), Jim McDermott (D-WA), Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), Rick Larsen (D-WA), and Suzan DelBene (D-WA).

Additionally, McGovern and Torres led a group of 21 House lawmakers in a letter calling on Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén to establish a national commission to investigate and resolve the cases of the disappeared in El Salvador.

“Mr. President, we believe establishing a commission to investigate and resolve cases of the disappeared would be an important and positive step in relieving the suffering of so many Salvadoran families and communities, and for Salvadoran society as a whole,” the House lawmakers wrote in the letter. “We also believe that it would advance your own priorities to promote reconciliation, strengthen justice and rule of law, and consolidate peace in El Salvador.” 

Joining McGovern and Torres on the letter to Salvador President Sánchez Cerén were Representatives Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Grace Napolitano (D-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), Maxine Waters (D-CA), Sam Farr (D-CA), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Mike Honda (D-CA), Donna Edwards (D-MD), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA), Jim McDermott (D-WA), and Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL).

Full Text of the Letters to President Obama and President Cerén are Below:

August 15, 2016

The Honorable Barack H. Obama

President of the United States

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama,

We write to respectfully urge you to direct a review and declassification of U.S. military and intelligence records and reports that have not been previously released that relate to unresolved cases of disappearances and human rights abuses during the period of the civil war in El Salvador.

Your recent decision to order the declassification of records related to the dirty war in Argentina was an important and welcome step that will help uncover the truth about what happened in that country during that conflict.  It demonstrates that you understand the pain and suffering of families who have long searched for information about what happened to their loved ones who disappeared decades ago – and the importance of how U.S. records might help facilitate clarifying the truth and strengthening justice in the countries where their forced disappearances occurred.

Recently, a group of Salvadorans and Salvadoran-Americans whose family members were forcibly disappeared during the Salvadoran civil war came to Washington to talk about their efforts to uncover the truth about what happened to their loved ones. They told moving and powerful stories about missing parents and loved ones. According to the 1993 U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission, which reported on human rights abuses during the 12-year civil war, more than 5,000 people were forcibly disappeared, most often by security forces or “heavily armed men in civilian dress.”  Human rights and victims’ groups place the numbers as high as 10,000.   None of these cases has ever been fully investigated.  Many family members have no knowledge about what happened to their spouses, parents or other relatives, and they have never been able to bury their dead or find closure to their grief.

Family members and victims’ groups are calling on the Government of El Salvador to launch a commission to investigate these cases and identify what happened to the disappeared.  This will require investigative capacity, forensic capacity, and access to military and intelligence records in El Salvador.  We support this call, and we will be urging the Salvadoran government to create such a commission.  We hope that you will do the same.

Today, as El Salvador seeks to strengthen its criminal justice system and consolidate the rule of law, and with a new Attorney General in office, it needs to address unresolved human rights cases, including these of forced disappearances. Creating a commission on the disappeared, and opening investigations into unresolved cases will not only bring a measure of closure to the families of victims, but it will demonstrate the government’s willingness to overcome the legacy of impunity and to pursue abuses, wherever they may lead.  These steps will strengthen rule of law and reinforce equality before the law in El Salvador, principles that both the U.S. and the Salvadoran governments have committed to as part of the Alliance for Prosperity and the U.S. strategy for Central America.

Investigations into disappearances and other human rights abuses would be greatly aided by further review and declassification of U.S. military and intelligence records related to those cases.  In 1993, following the report of the U.N. Truth Commission, President Clinton ordered a review and declassification of State Department, military and intelligence documents.  The released documents were extensive and have played an important role in subsequent human rights cases and in research on the events of the war. 

Between 1998 and 2000, further State Department and Pentagon documents related to the case of four U.S. churchwomen murdered in El Salvador were released in an unredacted format. Today, as Salvadorans and Salvadoran-Americans call for investigation of unresolved disappearances, and as other human rights cases move forward, it is appropriate and timely for the U.S. to consider a new review and declassification of all remaining records in relation to these cases and circumstances.  Information in U.S. files could help identify individuals or groups involved in forced disappearances and provide insight and leads about where those forcibly disappeared were taken for interrogation, or where bodies were disposed.  U.S. records might help identify some of the patterns of disappearances and give investigators clues as they pursue cases of forced disappearance or other abuses.

The United States played an important role in providing military, economic and intelligence assistance to the Salvadoran government, military and its allies over the course of the civil war.  Further declassification in relation to unresolved cases in El Salvador could now help bring peace to the families of the disappeared and advance that nation’s on-going process to secure justice and reconciliation. 

Thank you, Mr. President, for your serious attention to this request.  We look forward to working with you in the creation of a mechanism to declassify the remaining U.S. records related to these cases and to helping Salvadorans and Salvadoran-Americans recover the truth about their loved ones.

Sincerely,

……………………

August 15, 2016

Sr. Salvador Sánchez Cerén

President

Republic of El Salvador

Casa Presidencial

San Salvador, El Salvador, C.A.

Dear President Sánchez Cerén,

We respectfully write to urge you to establish a national commission to investigate and help resolve the cases of Salvadorans who disappeared during the period of the Salvadoran civil war.

As you well know, the 1993 U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission, which reported on human rights abuses during the 12-year civil war, more than 5,000 people were forcibly disappeared, most often by security forces or “heavily armed men in civilian dress.”  Human rights and victims’ groups estimate the numbers might be as high as 10,000 disappeared.  None of these cases has ever been fully investigated.  Many family members have no knowledge about what happened to their spouses, parents, siblings or other relatives, and they have been unable to bury their dead or find closure to their grief and suffering.

Recently, a group of Salvadorans and Salvadoran-Americans whose family members were forcibly disappeared during the war came to Washington, DC to talk about their efforts to uncover the truth about what happened to their loved ones.  They told moving and powerful stories about missing parents and loved ones.

It is our understanding that family members of the disappeared and victims’ groups are calling on the Government of El Salvador to launch a commission to investigate these cases and identify what happened to the disappeared.  We support this call, and we encourage you to exercise your leadership and establish such a commission.  An effective commission will require investigative capacity, forensic capacity, and access to Salvadoran military, intelligence other records in El Salvador. With your support, such a commission could do much to address the pain and uncertainty that the families of the disappeared continue to experience.

We strongly support the national commission created by the Salvadoran government to investigate and locate children who were forcibly and/or involuntarily separated from their natural parents and relatives during the civil war.  That commission, although not perfect, is generally viewed as making an important contribution to reuniting families and healing wartime wounds.  A similar commission on the disappeared could also make an important contribution to reconciliation and to healing for these long-suffering families and communities.

Today, as El Salvador seeks to strengthen its criminal justice system and consolidate the rule of law, it needs to address unresolved human rights cases, including forced disappearances. Creating a commission on the disappeared and opening investigations into unresolved cases will not only bring a measure of peace to the families of victims, it will also demonstrate the willingness of your Administration to overcome the legacy of impunity and its commitment to pursue abuses, wherever they might lead.  These steps will help strengthen rule of law and reinforce equality before the law, principles that both the U.S. and the Salvadoran governments pledged as part of the Alliance for Prosperity. 

Please know that we have asked President Obama to declassify all remaining U.S. records relevant to the search for El Salvador’s disappeared and the circumstances surrounding forced disappearances during the civil war.  We have also asked him to support the establishment of such a commission on the disappeared by the Salvadoran government.

Mr. President, we believe establishing a commission to investigate and resolve cases of the disappeared would be an important and positive step in relieving the suffering of so many Salvadoran families and communities, and for Salvadoran society as a whole.  We also believe that it would advance your own priorities to promote reconciliation, strengthen justice and rule of law, and consolidate peace in El Salvador. 

Thank you for your attention to this request.  We look forward to hearing from you and working with you on this serious human rights issue.

Sincerely,

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